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Made in U.S.A.

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Snakehead (2021)

Among the recent films on immigrants – “Limbo,” “I Carry You With Me,” “El cuartito,” “Chal Mera Putt,” “Flee” etc. – “Snakehead” is the only one that actually hammers home the point that lives are at stake. Perhaps that’s because it is also a gangster flick. In the others, border crossing is merely a process: If you get caught, you get deported; it’s no biggie – the movies don’t even remind you of the dangers awaiting the immigrants back home. “Snakehead,” on the other hand, shows that the peril doesn’t end on arrival. The smugglers, to whom the undocumented are indebted, are far more dreadful than the Border Patrol.

Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) and her child have been separated in a botched attempt to enter the United States, so she’s on a mission. She has to pay off $57,000 by working in a New York Chinatown brothel. After she gets in a fight, the matriarch of the criminal enterprise, Dai Mah (lit. big mother in Mandarin; played by Jade Wu), decides that Sister Tse will get promoted rather than punished. She starts working in the back of a restaurant before graduating to debt collection and human trafficking. The riskier the job, the sooner she’ll be able to settle her account.

Dai Mah’s sons Rambo (Sung Kang) and Pai Gwut (Richie Ng) grow resentful of Sister Tse out of equal parts distrust and jealousy. They dabble in drug trafficking, which is where she draws the line. At this juncture, “Snakehead” is a full-blown genre picture with little to add to the conversation on the migrants’ plight. Sister Tse is not typical of the undocumented. She’s on the other side, balancing Dai Mah’s expectations with her own self interests. She holds her own fighting much bigger guys. Come to think of it, we get a sense early on that writer-director Evan Jackson Leong isn’t that serious about presenting the immigrant experience accurately, despite deeply embedding the film in authentic locales in New York City, because Sister Tse speaks accent-free American English. One can appreciate the nonstereotypical depiction, but not to the point that it defies logic.

Still, “Snakehead” impactfully depicts the clear and present danger facing the undocumented, making it painfully obvious that many of its contemporaries are works of white filmmakers far removed from the subject matter and having little to convey other than pity. That makes for an entertaining thriller indeed. But the awareness and sympathies it raises begin and end with just one character.


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